Catalonia heads for clash with Spain
The Spanish authorities have pulled out all the stops to try to prevent an independence referendum in Catalonia this weekend which the Madrid government deems illegal. But the Catalan government is determined to press ahead. Ben Hall discusses the crisis with Michael Stothard and Tony Barber.
Presented by Ben Hall and produced by Fiona Symon
Welcome to World Weekly with me, Ben Hall. It feels like a slow-motion train wreck. Catalonia is heading for a clash with Spain this weekend over the regional government's plan there for an independence referendum, which the central government in Madrid deems illegal. The Spanish authorities have pulled out all the stops to prevent Sunday's vote from going ahead in this wealthy northeastern region.
Catalonia has its own language and distinctive culture and has been pressing relentlessly for decades for greater autonomy. Madrid has taken direct control of Catalan finances in recent weeks, placed the regional police under central command, arrested officials suspected of organising the plebiscite, seized ballot boxes, and is even planning to cordon off all secondary schools this weekend to ensure they're not used as polling stations. The confrontation has all the ingredients to turn violent, further feeding the secessionist cause and the resentment in the rest of Spain to what many consider a renegade region with no respect for the law.
Joining me to discuss the most serious political and constitutional crisis in Spain since the failed coup of 1981 are Michael Stothard, the FT's correspondent in Madrid, and Tony Barber, our Europe editor. Michael, this is looking really bad, isn't it? Is there any way out from this confrontation?
I don't think there's any way that the vote on Sunday won't go ahead, or at least that the Catalan government won't try and push ahead with the vote on Sunday. I think we're beyond talks. And as you say, it's looking pretty horrific. It's in no one's interest to back down. It's one of those political situations where all the incentives are pointing to more drama and more chaos and, as you say, potentially violent clashes.
Tony, why are the Catalans demanding independence?
I think, first of all, we must be very clear about something. This is an issue that doesn't pit the region of Catalonia against the rest of Spain. It divides Catalonia itself. It is a deeply, deeply divisive issue within Catalan society, as is shown by opinion polls, which suggest that those in favour of independence and those against are roughly matched, with perhaps a slight majority against. So although the Catalan secessionists have been very astute in presenting it as a case of a united region against insensitive authorities at the centre in Spain, actually, the reality is extremely different.
As regards why the pressure for independence has grown in recent years, most people would take as the starting point the striking down or partial striking down of a new statute of autonomy that had been approved both by the Spanish and Catalan legislatures and by referendum in Catalonia after 2006. It was struck down in 2010 as a result of a sort of behind-the-scenes pressure from the ruling Spanish popular party on the Constitutional Court in Madrid. And it was from that point in 2010 that the independence movement really began to gather steam.
And partly exacerbated, you might say, by Spain's financial crisis, which just put more strains on the Spanish political system, essentially.
Yes. The two other factors that need mentioning are, one, the financial crisis in Spain, which contributed to the fragmentation of the political party system both at national level in Spain, but crucially, also in Catalonia itself such that a rather unholy alliance of a center-right party that had previously only favoured autonomy became a bit radicalised as a result of the crisis and a party with radical leftist policies. And they've pushed forward the independence agenda.
The second factor I would mention is the welter of corruption scandals that tainted Spanish politics and, I would add, Catalan politics, as well, in recent years. And that has, I think, heated up the atmosphere quite a lot.
Michael, I wanted to come back on something that, actually, Tony just said about how Catalan society is itself deeply divided about the case for independence. But what we have seen, though, is probably quite a strong majority of Catalans in favour of the right to decide on their future. Isn't that right?
Yeah. That's absolutely right. Most people feel that it is reasonable for them to have a vote on their own future. And that's a mainstream, majority-held view in Catalonia.
The question of whether it will be good for Catalonia economically, particularly, or socially or anything to really be independent from Spain-- this country has never been independent from Spain-- is a more divisive question and one that never really had majority support in Catalonia, as Tony said.
It was around 50% back a few years ago. But as Spain's economy and as the Catalonian economy has improved, it's since fallen, which, again, ties into that point I was making earlier about incentives for the Catalan government. They're aware that support for independence is going the wrong way. And many see this upcoming vote on Sunday as a way of galvanising support, particularly if Madrid is very heavy-handed in how it cracks down on the vote. [INAUDIBLE] this is turning the tide on the falling support for independence in the region.
Tony, have the central government authorities been too heavy-handed here? Isn't there a risk that they're just feeding resentment in Spain and possibly pushing more ambivalent voices more firmly into the independentist camp?
I think one could certainly argue that the government in Madrid should have shown more openness and flexibility to discuss a kind of improved form of autonomy for Catalonia. Around 2012, I would say, there was an opportunity for that. They didn't do it. They were too stubborn, perhaps.
And the closer we got to the situation today, the harder it became, I think, for the government to back down. What they have in their favour, of course, is the fact that there is no provision in the 1978 Spanish Constitution, which was the constitution adopted after Spain's return to democracy-- no provision for the secession of a region.
So the government has the backing of Spain's highest court on constitutional masses for that position. And in many ways, the confrontation, until recent days, has been cast in legal terms. And from that perspective, the government feels that it's got the full backing of the law behind it.
Do you think, Tony, that Catalan regional autonomy can survive this crisis in its current form?
It will have to. In an ideal world, which we're certainly not in at the moment, there would be discussions between the central authorities and the Catalan government on how to somehow revive the modernised form of autonomy that was contained in the 2006 statute. It doesn't look like those sort of negotiations could happen soon. And the risk of a misstep or an overreaction by either side now is really quite serious. But somehow, I think they need to get back to that.
And although it's true that the majority of people in Catalonia of whatever identity like the idea of having a referendum, I think what also comes out is that when you ask people, well, would you prefer some kind of updated autonomy, you get a majority for that as well.
Yeah. Michael, in the shorter term, though, it's looking like Catalonia might lose a lot of its powers and that Madrid may be forced to actually take direct control over much of the government, right?
Yeah. Absolutely. I don't think Madrid necessarily-- I don't think Rajoy wants to use the so-called nuclear option, which is an article of the Constitution, 155, which allows them to just do whatever they want, basically-- take over Catalan autonomy. They can just depose the president pushed demand. But I think that's a last resort.
But if the region unilaterally declares independence at the beginning of next week, as has been threatened, they may have no option but to say, OK. This is enough. You've had your fun. You're all out. We're having new elections. We're having a new government. This is over.
Tony, last question-- many people in Catalonia want Europe to intervene to lean on Madrid. Are they naive to think that the European authorities or other capitals might do so?
I think the rest of the European Union wants to leave it to people in Spain and Catalonia to sort this out. There is a pretty strongly held view, I would say, in all national capitals elsewhere that this is not an issue for the EU to get involved in.
I would add that national governments elsewhere in the EU do not support independence for Catalonia. They are pretty firm about that. And I think it's very naive of the Catalan government to think that all will be well if they were to declare independence at the start of next week. I think there would be absolutely no support for that from either Brussels or the other 27 EU member states.
It's going to be a pretty nail-biting weekend, I think, in Barcelona and in Madrid. World Weekly is produced by Fiona Symon. Until next week, goodbye.